SFMTA Cancels Townsend Safety Project; Advocates Fight Back

Conflict and stress characterize latest People-Protected Bike Lane protest

One of many Ubers/Lyfts making an illegal u-turn after discharging passengers on Townsend during yesterday's protest. All photos Streetsblog/Rudick unless noted
One of many Ubers/Lyfts making an illegal u-turn after discharging passengers on Townsend during yesterday's protest. All photos Streetsblog/Rudick unless noted

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Roughly seventy safety advocates donned yellow t-shirts and stood on the edge of the bike lanes along Townsend Street at the King Street Station yesterday evening to demand safety upgrades. The protest was put together in direct response to news that SFMTA has decided to cancel, or at least significantly postpone, a long-planned project to add sidewalks, bus boarding islands, and protected bike lanes on this busy, dangerous section of street (the agency has since updated their project page to spin it as a “responsible and efficient use of public funds.”)

A look at the recently canceled Townsend project. Image: SFMTA
A look at what could have been. Image: SFMTA

Safety advocate Kyle Grochmal wrote a great Medium post, going into the history and details of the safety plan and why it was cancelled. Put simply, the SFMTA quashed it because of rising costs and the complexities of working around the DTX project–a plan to extend Caltrain service into the soon-to-open Transbay Transit Center. But the move left advocates, including those at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, furious about a perceived lack of imagination and/or urgency to make Townsend safe for all users.

Tuesday evening’s protest on Townsend

“Waiting for the DTX is just not realistic,” said an official from City Hall who was at the protest but asked not to be identified. The official said the SFMTA needs to work with the Caltrain Board to find a solution. “Townsend is part of my everyday commute. It’s really chaotic, with lots of buses and cabs and Ubers–I don’t think it’s right to wait,” said Scott Feeney, another advocate at the protest.

As Grochmal pointed out in his post, 350 people cycle on Townsend during the weekday peak morning and evening hours on Townsend–more than on Folsom, where SFMTA recently and quickly installed simple, parking-protected bike lanes. Large groups of cyclists rode Townsend’s bike lanes yesterday, most waving and yelling support and gratitude to the protesters. “There are thousands of Caltrain riders who bike,” said Cliff Bargar, who represents the SFBC on the Caltrain Bike Advisory Committee and was also at the protest. “But this is an intimidating and stressful street,” he added, pointing to the mayhem of buses, cars, and bikes all vying for space.

UPDATE 7/12 SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose has informed Streetsblog that “SFMTA staff will be reviewing potential opportunities for quick and effective near-term safety upgrades before the Downtown Extension Project starts, particularly between 5th and 7th that can be accomplished without overhead trolley bus wire relocation.”

Buses were also forced to squeeze uncomfortably close, here passing advocates Paul Valdez and Dan Crosby

Indeed, Townsend between 4th and 5th during peak periods is possibly the most stressful stretch of street in the whole city, opined many. “Townsend is way worse,” said Dan Crosby, who was in a minor crash on his bike on the hairball last year. “It’s Ubers, Lyfts, to buses and private drop offs, delivery trucks.”

It isn’t any better for pedestrians, as Townsend is also one of the few roads in the city that doesn’t even have a sidewalk on both sides of the street.

Dan Crosby at yesterday evening’s protest on Townsend

In fact, if one were to intentionally design Townsend to be more stressful and conflict causing than it is currently, it’s difficult to imagine how to do so. Past people-protected bike lane protests on Valencia and Market, while sometimes adrenaline-producing, have also been fun, and most motorists slow down, toot their horns, and wave in support. A few drivers did that on Townsend, but there were also quite a few who decided to play chicken with the protesters–many nudged their way into the bike lanes and threatened people with their cars.

One driver even shouted out the window “where am I supposed to drop off my passenger, in the middle of the street!” Protesters tried to explain that they can drop people off around the corner, or in designated drop-off areas, and that the bike lane is still the street and not a loading zone. As with the Valencia protests, some drivers stopped in the motor-vehicle lane to discharge passengers and, since traffic was basically at its normal standstill anyway, those drop-offs seemed to work okay.

But standoffs and conflicts continued throughout the protest, as seen below:

Unlike previous protests on Market and Valencia, on Townsend motorists regularly attempted to intimidate protesters with their cars

At one point a Lyft driver, attempting to get his car into the bike lane, pushed into advocate Magnus Barber. The motorist then parked and got out of his car and a verbal altercation ensued, which, fortunately, was diffused by San Francisco police, as seen in the embedded video below:

In the end, the Lyft driver and Barber shook hands and everything ended peaceably, but it was symbolic of the conflict-generating nature of the street’s current design.

Or, as one protester quipped, “Can one even call this a design?”

Even as SFPD worked to diffuse the altercation with the Lyft driver and a protester, another car pulled into the bike lane.

Still, advocates found a little levity, via some dance moves, during the two-hour protest, as this GIF demonstrates:

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is asking people to turn out in force at the next SFMTA Board of Directors meeting at City Hall, Room 400, Tues., July 17, at 1 p.m., to demand the Townsend project be reinstated.

  • gb52

    One of the largest issues is with pickups and dropoffs. Dedicated areas need to be established and enforced. Enforcement during the commute time especially will drive up compliance and will make the situation more orderly. Rideshares can move across the street or down the block. People need to realize that they cannot just stop anywhere. Geofence the caltrain station itself. People can cross the street to catch their rides or make their transfers. They too will ask for calm and safety.

    In any case, SFMTA should do more. It doesn’t have to be grand, it doesn’t have to be perfect, build a pilot, a temporary improvement before DTX. Install a rubber curb and delineators and come back to build islands for loading zones. This is just not a good place for an inrush of cars trying to load and unload people.

  • saimin

    There are no bike lanes on most of the cross streets. If there is no legal parking space they can use, instead of double parking in the bike lane, Ubers should just turn at the next corner and drop the passenger off there.

  • mx

    It goes both ways. There’s a lot of demand for pickups and drop-offs, and pretending that demand doesn’t exist won’t make it go away, so there needs to be space designated for it. Then make the software respect that, just like pickups and drop-offs are restricted at the airport and other congested areas. Once that’s done, enforce the hell out of it. There should be physical barriers and DPT on site during commute hours.

    It’s astonishing how much time the city has wasted hoping ridesharing will magically go away instead of getting on with figuring out how to accommodate it safely.

  • theqin

    It’s funny, I went to the neighborhood meeting regarding the new high rise they’re putting on the creamery site. The architects were danish and one of them was at the meeting. I asked him to make the plans have a better bike bike/vehicle interface and he was surprised to learn that Townsend even had bike lanes. Probably because there are so many half faded lines going every which way from prevoius construction projects you can’t even tell what’s supposed to be going on.

  • crazyvag

    Or just double park like anywhere without any bike lanes.

  • crazyvag

    I’d like to see a bike lane down from North Beach via Stockton and 4th created from the current Central Subway construction zones since traffic is already adjusted to reduced number of lanes.

  • Roger R.

    PS: Jane Kim’s office sent this in response to this article: “Our office is committed to moving the Townsend Corridor Improvement Project forward and want to make sure the best possible plan is finalized before the end of Supervisor Kim’s term.”

  • theplaz

    Part of the problem is the parking is on the other side of the bike lane – requiring plenty of crossing the bike lane. Could they just swap parking and bike for now?

  • Expecting/demanding legal behavior is distinct from “hoping it will magically go away.” No accommodation for unsafe illegal practices.